The board of Baltimore Clayworks is moving ahead with the sale of its buildings in Mount Washington, even as some longtime members are seeking to halt the transaction.
Devon Powell, interim executive director of Baltimore Clayworks, said the organization has a letter of intent from a prospective buyer for its two buildings in Mount Washington. He said he expects a sale contract to be signed within weeks.
Powell declined to name the buyer, but he said it is a non-profit group that wants to purchase both of Baltimore Clayworks’ buildings, plus a parking lot, for its own use. In terms of hours, he said, it’s a group that “operates like a … school,” from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“They are going to be an excellent non-profit citizen,” he said. It’s a group that “Mount Washington will be very lucky … to have.”
The prospective buyer may be willing to let Baltimore Clayworks lease back the property for several months after the sale is completed, to give the non-profit ceramic art center more time to operate in Mount Washington while it looks for a new home, Powell said.
Powell explained that the buyer doesn’t need to vacate its current location until early 2018, so it’s not looking to move to Mount Washington until closer to then.
Because of the buyer’s flexibility, “it’s highly unlikely that we would move until January of 2018,” he said.
Baltimore Clayworks disclosed in February that it was considering selling its buildings in Mount Washington. The buildings are located on opposite sides of the 5700 block of Smith Avenue. Representatives said the organization is experiencing financial problems and the sale of its real estate would be a way to address those problems. If a buyer emerges, they said, Baltimore Clayworks would launch a search for a new location, possibly in one of Baltimore’s arts and entertainment districts.
Baltimore Clayworks purchased its original studio building at 5706 Smith Avenue, formerly an Enoch Pratt Library branch, from the city in 1980. It houses 15 kilns, 13 artist studios, three large classroom studios, a semi-private studio space and two glaze rooms.
The Saint Paul Companies donated Baltimore Clayworks’ second building, located at 5707 Smith Avenue, in 1999. A former convent built in the late 19th century, it now holds the organization’s gallery, shops, and administrative offices, among other facilities.
The organization asked $4.5 million for the two buildings, plus a 40-space parking lot near the Mount Washington light rail stop. Powell declined to say how much the prospective buyer has offered to pay.
The board’s decision to sell the buildings has drawn opposition from numerous members and students, including some of the organization’s nine founders. Opponents of the sale have posted “Save Baltimore Clayworks” signs throughout Mount Washington and created a website explaining why they want to see it stay where it is, if possible (www.clayworkscommunity.com).
On Saturday, about 50 people, many carrying picket signs, gathered in the rain outside the two buildings to express their concerns about the pending sale. Baltimore Clayworks was having an auction and fundraiser inside its studio and classroom building, and the opponents said they wanted anyone who attended the event to see that there are people who don’t want the sale to proceed.
Marsha Smelkinson, a member of the steering committee behind the Save Baltimore Clayworks campaign, said the board has described the building sale opponents as a “small” group, and part of the reason for picketing outside the fundraiser was to show its size.
She said Save Baltimore Clayworks advocates have donated or pledged $200,000 to help pay off the organization’s debts, if that will stop the sale. She said more than 800 people have signed an online petition urging Baltimore Clayworks to call off the sale.
When it disclosed plans to sell its buildings, Baltimore Clayworks said it has debts of $900,000. Smelkinson said she questions whether it makes sense for an organization to sell real estate that it values at $4.5 million to cover $900,000 in debts. “It’s disproportionate to a ridiculous degree.”
She said her group has tried to get financial information from the board to understand why it needs to sell its buildings but hasn’t been successful.
“We’ve asked if we can see the financial information about this debt,” she said. “We’re not getting any answers.”
Short of having more information, “we don’t think they should make this decision at this time,” she said.
Smelkinson said there are only about five or six other organizations around the country that have the physical resources Baltimore Clayworks does and “the rest of them are thriving, booming.”
John Gazruian, a member and student for the past 17 year, said he has been frustrated by the lack of information from the board about the sale.
“It’s all under a cloak of secrecy,” he said. “They don’t share anything.”
Morale is low too, he said. “It used to be a place of joy. Now, it’s depressing.”
“It’s all secretive. They’ve been very quiet,” said Marlene Sokoloski-Sandler, one of the founders of Baltimore Clayworks, who carried one of the largest protest signs on Saturday. “They’re not being transparent.”
Sue Patz, a member since 1992, said she believes both sides would benefit if they stopped moving so quickly to complete a sale.
“I want them to pause the sale for a minute, listen to the community, and work together with us,” she said. “If they move [out of Mount Washington], they will lose the community that has been supporting them, and I’m afraid they won’t have the funds to replicate what they have now.”
Powell said the organization’s current debt is between $1 million and $1.3 million, and board members have talked individually with some members who have questioned the sale. He said the organization isn’t selling the buildings only to cover past debts. He said the organization also has a cash flow problem that affects its ability to continue operating in Mount Washington.
“The real issue isn’t just debt,…It’s not that simple,” he said. “Cash flow is the problem.”
Powell said the organization has two balloon payments coming due soon that will require it to pay large sums of money. He said the board has a “fiduciary duty” to ensure the organization’s survival, and that it sees no other option but to sell the buildings and move to a new location.
If it gets a contract in the next few weeks, he said, he expects the sale to be finalized in about 90 days. In the meantime, he said, the board is exploring possible locations for a Baltimore Clayworks move.